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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Blyth, 1855-61

THE Port of Blyth is situated on the coast of Northumberland, about ten miles north of the River Tyne. The surrounding district is rich in coal, but until 1861 only a small class of vessels could trade to the port, and consequently a great part of the coal raised in the neighbourhood was transmitted by rail to the Tyne for shipment. In 1853, however, a Company, of which the Lord of the Manor, Sir M. W. Ridley, father of the present Baronet, Sir M. W. Ridley, Secretary of State for the Home Department, was Chairman, was formed, and powers obtained for improving the harbour, and Mr. Abernethy was appointed Engineer for the works. For a length of a mile the River Blyth was exposed to the action of the sea—a very heavy sea at times—and no vessel could then lie in this portion of what is now the harbour.

Along the seaward side of the river there is a rocky reef called the Coble Hole Rocks, and upon the base thus provided by nature the breakwater was erected. The channel was extremely tortuous, and in many places dry at spring tides. Generally there was not more than a foot of water within it, and a spit of sand extended from the southern side nearly across the entrance, which presented a dangerous obstruction to shipping during rough weather. The channel for ts entire length of 4500 feet ran parallel with a lee shore, exposed to the direct action of the north-easterly seas, and consequently scarcely a winter passed without vessels being stranded and wrecked on the beach on the southern side, while the estuary within the river mouth, forming the harbour, was exposed to the sea during on-shore winds.

Guided largely by experience acquired at Aberdeen, which is very similarly situated, he designed works calculated to effect the following objects:—Firstly, to afford protection to vessels entering and leaving from the action of the sea during north-easterly winds; Secondly, to confine and direct the outgoing current, so as to produce sufficient scouring power to maintain the increased depth by dredging; Thirdly, to prolong the outgoing current seaward, so as to bring the detritus carried by it within the influence of the tidal current along the coast.

The works were commenced in 1855 and were completed during 1861, at a total cost of 67,320. They comprised an eastern breakwater 4500 feet in length, a western half-tide training wall 4000 feet in length, and the straightening and deepening of the channel by dredging. Their efficiency soon became apparent alter completion. The outgoing current was increased to a velocity of live knots per hour at its greatest strength, whereas, formerly, it was lost immediately on passing the line of the foreshore.

The bar, too, or spit of sand across the entrance entirely disappeared, and a depth of eight or nine feet at low water opposite the breakwater was provided. The channel was further deepened to the extent of four feet, and vessels, after passing within the breakwater, were effectually protected from north-easterly winds.

That the works were considered wholly satisfactory when completed the subjoined letter perhaps affords the best evidence:— '

May 13th, 1862.


“Dear Sir,

“At a Meeting of the Directors of the Blyth Harbour and Dock Company held here to-day, the following Resolution was passed:—

“A Letter from Mr. Abernethy to Sir M. W. Eidley having been laid before the Board, in which lie intimated that all the works which require his superintendence as at present contemplated by the Company will be completed in the course of a month, it was resolved that this Board beg to record their sense of the zeal and ability with which he has designed and carried out the works, and to request that after the expiration of the present half-year he will consent to act as Consulting Engineer of the Company.'

“I am, Dear Sir,

“Yours very truly,

“John Laws,

“James Abernethy, Esq., C.E.”



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